Chickens need to have access to grit, as it is vital for chewing their food.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
As a follow-up to our article on getting started raising poultry, here are a few more tips for you chicken-loving homesteaders out there.
Coccidiosis doesn't have to be a problem for homesteaders who raise chickens. We used to buy .10 or .15 cents worth of permanganate of potash (the price is probably a bit more now for the same amount—2 tablespoonsful) and dissolve it in a pint jar of water. Permanganate of potash looks like freeze-dried coffee, only the crystals are dark purple. After it's dissolved, you add just enough of the pint mixture to the chickens' drinking water to turn it a faint lavender.
If you do this as soon as the chicks are hatched, they'll rarely get the disease because coccidiosis is actually a class of protozoan that live in a chicken's intestines as a parasite, and the permanganate knocks them for a loop. Of course, if you wait until the birds already have coccidiosis, you'll have to use a stronger mixture of the permanganate, and you may still lose a few chicks. It's better to use the potash as a means of preventing coccidiosis from the beginning. Any country drugstore should have it.
Chickens need grit. It goes into their gizzard and is what they use for "chewing" their food. Some soils just do not contain enough fine gravel to supply this need (the chicks will even pick up broken bits of glass in such cases), and you may have to buy grit for your birds.
From the point when pullets are almost ready to lay, and on throughout their adult life, they need some ground oyster shell to eat. This replaces the calcium that is pulled out of their systems to "package" the eggs, keeps the hens healthier, and prevents soft-shelled eggs. Feed dealers have the material already crushed and bagged.
There's no need to buy "store bought" chicks. You can hatch your own if you have fertile eggs. The average hen can cover 21 eggs, but she has to be set in a place where no one will disturb her. If you use your brooder house, you can set several hens in the same room provided each has her own box or nest. Sometimes, however, it's impossible to find a broody hen. If that's the case, you can scout around for one of the incubators that many old farmers have tucked away in the attic. We used to have one that held about 100 eggs.
Learn more in Raise Your Best Flock Using Broody Hens.
Accolades for Leghorns
One final point: Don't sell the large English Leghorn short. Folks used to let their Leghorns (the layin' hens) fend for themselves while feeding ground grain to some heavier breeds reserved for the table. Naturally, when the Leghorns finally went into the stew pot, they were tough. Properly fed plenty of corn, wheat and other grain, they're actually better eating than White Rocks and other heavyweights.
For that matter, we've had Big English Leghorn hens weigh as much as 6 pounds, and you'll find that you get more meat from a 3-pound Leghorn fryer than a heavy fryer of the same size because the Leghorn's bones are smaller.
For a real treat, start some Leghorn chicks in late February or early March. By late May or the first of June (maybe even sooner if you really pour on the feed), you'll have 1-1/2 to 2 pound broilers that are just right for individual servings: one chicken to each eager eater. Talk about tender and delicious!